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Refugees: Homelessness

Volume 834: debated on Wednesday 13 December 2023


Asked by

To ask His Majesty’s Government what steps, if any, they will take to mitigate the prevalence of homelessness among refugees, and its impact on local authorities, over the Christmas period.

I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper and declare my interest as a vice-president of the Local Government Association.

My Lords, in line with the practice every year, individuals who have received a decision on their asylum claim will not be moved out of asylum accommodation over the Christmas period. For this year, the dates are 23 December to 2 January inclusive.

I thank the noble Lord for that Answer. My concern was with recent Home Office data showing that around 90,000 outstanding decisions on older cases are forecast to be made before the end of December. Quite clearly, that would have a significant impact on certain councils, so will he please inform me, either now or in writing, what has happened in respect of that cohort? Does he agree that, with the demand for temporary accommodation at an all-time high, any increases are likely to overload the system and increase street homelessness? Will the Government consider increasing the notice time given to people in hotels from 28 days to 56 days, as in the Homelessness Reduction Act? Will there be a cessation over the Christmas period and in the colder weather so that plans can be put in place with the councils that are most impacted by this? Asylum distribution among councils is not equal; some councils are severely impacted.

The noble Baroness has asked me a number of questions. The Prime Minister committed in December 2022 to clear the historical asylum backlog by the end of this year. Those are the legacy cases, and provisional data to the end of November 2023 suggest that 80% of them have already been dealt with. It is nowhere near the figure that the noble Baroness suggested. I will write. I am reluctant to give provisional figures for obvious reasons—they still need to be verified.

On extending the 28-day move-on period, the asylum accommodation estate is under huge strain, as the House is well aware, so increasing the move-on period would exacerbate those pressures. There are currently no plans to extend the prescribed period of 28 days for how long individuals remain on asylum support once they have received the grant of asylum. We are engaging with the Department for Work and Pensions and DLUHC on ensuring individuals can move on from asylum support as smoothly as possible.

My Lords, what are the Government doing about the increasing antagonism between UK people who are homeless and people who are refugees? We need to address this, because we do not want the outbreak of racism and all those other chauvinisms that are happening down at the bottom end of society.

I agree with the noble Lord; we absolutely do not want those. The Government work closely with police forces and other agencies to ensure that sort of thing does not happen.

My Lords, the Minister talked about a period over the Christmas holidays when refugees would not be thrown out on the streets. How many are going to be thrown out on the streets when that period is over?

My Lords, obviously, I cannot predict what that number will be, as those asylum cases are still being processed.

My Lords, I declare an interest as someone who will be hosting a Ukrainian family for consecutive Christmases in our family home with my wife, and they are very welcome. It does, however, raise a medium-term problem: like many Ukrainian families, they came here on a three-year visa, and after 20 months, they are understandably thinking about what comes next. Our Ukrainians are happily settled here, working and contributing to the economy, and, if I am honest, probably do not want to go home, like many. President Zelensky desperately wants them to go home and contribute to the reconstruction of Ukraine. What will the approach of the Government to them be as they come towards the end of their three-year visa?

I commend my noble friend for his generosity in hosting the Ukrainian family and I associate myself with the remarks on how they are needed back in Ukraine—they will be needed when the reconstruction efforts in that country commence. Regarding what the Government are planning for the Ukrainian visa system, I do not have that information to hand but will come back to the House as and when it is available.

My Lords, given what has already been said about the inadequate notice period, can the Minister give an assurance that no notice to vacate will be implemented when a severe weather emergency protocol has been announced?

I would take slight issue with the right reverend Prelate on whether the notice period is inadequate. I think that 28 days is more than enough, and there is huge pressure on our asylum system. As the House will be aware given that we talked about it the other day, the asylum and immigration system is costing this country £4 billion a year. However, ministerial agreement has been given to pause evictions for up to three days when a local authority has activated its severe weather emergency protocol due to poor weather conditions. This reduces the risks to life and enables the individual and/or local authority to find alternative accommodation arrangements.

My Lords, the biometric residence permit gives successful asylum claimants access to public services, including, crucially, access to cash and funding for housing. What progress has the department made in bringing the notice to vacate closer to the time when it provides the permit? Bringing those closer together would give people the full time available to them to find appropriate housing because they would have the cash available. Without it, they cannot find the cash. I know the Government intended to make progress on this; what progress has been made in bringing those two dates together?

My Lords, the noble Lord is quite right. The move-on period is linked to when a biometric residence permit is issued and received because, as he points out, individuals generally require that BRP to access mainstream support—benefits, local authority housing, right to rent, bank accounts and so on. They are linked.

My Lords, during the Covid crisis, a lot of homes were made available for homeless people. Why have the Government let that slip and gone backwards rather than forwards?

My Lords, Covid presented a very different set of challenges to those we face today. We are attempting to relieve the pressure on the enormously overburdened hotels, and all the rest of it, that are costing this country £8 million a day and £4 billion a year.

My Lords, following on from my noble friend’s question, the Minister is correct that the Government are trying to align the permit period but, once a permit is received, it takes at least another five weeks before universal credit and housing benefit applications can be dealt with. Will the Minister go back to the department and look at the broader picture to align the two timescales so that people are not made homeless because they cannot claim those benefits?

I will take that up with DWP colleagues, as it sounds very much like it is for their department. I cannot answer the question.

My Lords, in the spirit of Christmas, will the Minister reflect on his answer to the right reverend Prelate that 28 days is “more than enough” for a recognised refugee about to be evicted, whose knowledge of English may be minimal, who may have children and who might have suffered trauma back home?

Yes, I think so, because the refugee will have been processed under a legacy asylum case and will therefore have been in that accommodation for a very long time—over a year. They would have had ample time to learn English and embed themselves to some extent into British society. An extra month is perfectly generous.

My Lords, some of those in Home Office asylum care will be under 18. How confident is the Minister that none of those under-18s will ever be made homeless and that they will find their way into some form of social care provided by local authorities?

Obviously, there have been a number of recent examples where things have gone wrong, but I am as confident as I can be that they have now been fixed. As has been said many times from this Dispatch Box, we are working carefully and closely with the local authorities concerned.

My Lords, this morning, I had the privilege of attending a fundraising effort by voluntary organisations, which help so much, especially at this time of year, with refugee problems. What acknowledgement do we give those many voluntary organisations and all the people involved for all the effort they give at this time of year to make refugees feel at home and able to enjoy Christmas?

The noble Lord raises a very good point. I am happy to add my congratulations, thanks and general appreciation to all those organisations involved in charitable activities of whatever sort at this time of year.